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HK Past and Present: Facts & Trivia

In our regular feature, we investigate Hong Kong’s past and present, with interesting facts, tips, trivia and time travel – and the occasional tricky challenge for readers! We’ll be updating this every month or two, so don’t forget to check back regularly!

Flashback!

Founding a Ferry

The name Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala may not roll off the tongue, but it’s an important one in the history of one of Hong Kong’s iconic companies. Dorabjee was an Indian parsee who arrived here in 1852 as a stowaway on a ship travelling from Bombay to China.

From those humble origins, he went on to become a hotel entrepreneur, founding the King Edward Hotel and perhaps as many as three other properties in Hong Kong.

In 1880, Dorabjee launched a ferry service across Victoria Harbour with a steamboat called the Morning Star – the “star” in the name stemmed from the symbol of his Zoroastrian religion. The trip between Pedder’s Wharf and Tsim Sha Tsui took between 40 minutes and an hour. By 1890, there were four ferries making the journey.

Over the next ten years, British-Indian businessman Sir Catchick Paul Chater bought all the boats from Dorabjee, and in May 1898 the Star Ferry became a public company.

Today, around 26 million people each year ride on Hong Kong’s iconic green-and-white Star Ferry. The fleet’s nine boats ply the eight minute route from Central to TST and back again all day, with passengers paying just a couple of HK dollars or so for the privilege.

hong Kong ferry

Exploring

On the road again

There are more than 860,000 registered vehicles in Hong Kong, which makes for an incredibly busy network of highways, streets and lanes – many of which have an interesting backstory. Here’s our look at 10 pieces of road-related trivia in HK.

#1 The longest road in Hong Kong is Castle Peak Road – which, incidentally, celebrates its 100th birthday in 2020. The 51.5km road runs from Kowloon all the way to near the top of the New Territories.

#2 And the shortest? Well, there are some tiny lanes that aren’t navigable by car (one example is Wa On Lane off Aberdeen Street), but the shortest street that vehicles can use is Lok Kwai Path in Shatin. It’s 12 metres in length.

#3 Tsat Tsz Mui Road in North Point has a tragic background to its name. It means “seven sisters” and refers to a tale of seven Hakka girls who lived in the original village at this spot. When young, they pledged to remain sisters for life, and to die on the same day without getting married. After the girls’ parents arranged a marriage for one of them, they committed suicide together on the beach the day before the wedding. The urban myth developed around a group of seven large boulders located along the shoreline here.

Hong Kong City trams

#4 There’s a Hong Kong street name that consists of an English name spelt backwards. Know which one? Well, a Mr Alexander once lived along a particular Mid-Levels terrace, and today the thoroughfare is known as Rednaxela Terrace. Nobody really knows why, though the error is usually blamed on a scribe who was accustomed to reading Chinese from right to left.

#5 That same street is famous not just for its backwards name, but as the temporary home of José Rizal, the Filipino nationalist hero of the 19th century. During his time in Hong Kong (1891-1892), he ran an ophthalmology clinic on D’Aguilar Street, Central.

#6 Russell Street in Causeway Bay has six times been named the most expensive retail street by rental value in the world. It last regained the crown in 2018, replacing New York’s Fifth Avenue, thanks to an average rental per square foot of almost HK$21,000. Not quite so luxurious is the street’s old nickname of “Mouse Street” or “Rat Street”, which it got for the excessive rodent population that was drawn to all the traditional wet markets once found here.

#7 The one-way High Street in Sai Ying Pun was originally called Fourth Street. Why did the name get changed? If you’ve ever been in an elevator whose numbers skip straight from three to five, it’s the same reason: the number four is considered unlucky because in Chinese it sounds similar to the word for “death”. (Fear of the number four, by the way, is known as tetraphobia.)

#8 A large number of Hong Kong street names have a maritime theme. In Shau Kei Wan alone, there are five streets that start with “Hoi” (“sea”). Elsewhere, you’ll find Ferry Street, Pier Road, Shek Wharf Road, Shipyard Lane, Boat Street and over 100 more.

#9 Chinese translations of English street names sometimes go astray, as evidenced by Fir Street, whose Chinese name translates as “Pine Street”. Meanwhile, Pine Street is known as “Cedar Street” in Chinese, and Cedar Street is “Cypress Street”.

#10 Yes, parts of the 1960 Hollywood film The World of Suzie Wong were filmed in Hollywood Road, but the street isn’t named for the famous Los Angeles movie enclave. The name has less glamorous origins, deriving from the family home in Bristol of Sir John Francis Davis, the second Governor of Hong Kong.

Also…

  • The highest speed limit of any road in Hong Kong is 110 kilometres per hour on the North Lantau Highway.
  • There are over 2,100km of roads in Hong Kong.
  • Glenealy is one of the few thoroughfares in the city without “Street”, “Road” or a similar suffix. It just goes as “Glenealy”.
  • Hong Kong has approximately 1,300 vehicular bridges, and 15 major road tunnels.
  • Many Hong Kong streets (or surrounding areas) have nicknames; they include Cat Street, Dried Seafood Street, Antique Street and Herbal Medicine Street.

Food Focus

5 things you mightn’t know about pineapple buns…

A pineapple bun (or bo lo bao) consists of a soft sweet bun topped with a harder crumbly cookie style crust made of sugar, eggs, flour and lard. When cooked, this crust on top cracks open, giving the bun a pineapple-like appearance on top. That’s where it gets its name – there’s no actual pineapple in the ingredient list. We’re sure you knew that fact, but here are a few other things about this delicious bakery snack that you mightn’t know!

Pineapple tart

  • “Pineapple Bun” was once nominated as a typhoon name but rejected on the grounds that it would sound silly in otherwise serious news reports of the storm.
  • The famous snack appeared in animated form in the 2004 film McDull, The Prince of the Pineapple Bun with Butter.
  • In 2014, the pineapple bun made it onto the government’s list of 480 “items of living cultural heritage” (along with entries such as fire dragon dances, kung fu and the making of snake wine).
  • A Japanese variety of the pineapple bun is the “melonpan”, whose top resembles a rockmelon or cantaloupe.
  • Among the famous places to buy the buns in Hong Kong is Tai Tung Bakery in Yuen Long, which has made around 1,000 of them daily for well over 70 years.

Click!

Hong Kong temple

Think you know Hong Kong well? Where is this photo taken? Check back here for the answer. The village shown in our last issue was Po Toi O in Sai Kung.

Want to find out more Hong Kong facts and trivia? See our Living in Hong Kong section.

A to Z of Hong Kong Trivia
25 Fun Facts About Hong Kong You’ll Love

This article first appeared in the October/November 2019 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.